Be Heart Smart When it Comes to Exercising

During a workout you may be focused on counting your reps, but are you also checking your pulse? “Your heart rate tells you the optimum intensity to aim for during exercise. After all, if you’re going to put the time and effort into working out, don’t you want it to yield maximum benefits?” says Nicolas Hernandez, DO, a family medicine physician with St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group in Orange.

Assuming you have a healthy heart—and if you don’t, you should always consult with your doctor before trying an exercise regimen—you should figure out your target heart rate before you hit the gym.

“The first step is calculating how many beats per minute your heart completes while you are resting,” Dr. Hernandez says. “Put your index and middle finger on your pulse point at your wrist, the side of your neck or inside the elbow. Count the beats for 60 seconds—this resting heart rate should be between 60 and 100 beats, and can go as low as 40 for people who are very physically fit. Ideally, you should take this pulse when you have just woken up or another time of day when you are at ease and comfortable. As you exercise, this resting heart rate can decrease; it can also go up if you are putting too much physical stress on the body.”

The next step is to figure out your target heart rate while exercising. The maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age—so a 20-year-old’s maximum heart rate is 200 beats per minute. From there, it’s a matter of percentages, Dr. Hernandez says.

“Moderate physical activity should put your heart rate at about 50 to 69 percent of your maximum heart rate, and intense activity ranges from 70 percent to about 85 percent.” (See the table below from the American Heart Association for suggested guidelines, or multiply your maximum heart rate by 0.5 for the lower end of the range or by 0.85 for the higher end.)

“If you’re not within your target range, it means you may not be getting enough of a workout; if your heart rate is too high, you are pushing it,” Dr. Hernandez says. “That’s why it’s important to check your pulse periodically during exercise. Just check your pulse point with the index and middle fingers, counting the beats for 10 seconds and multiplying that by six. For instance, if you count 25 beats in 10 seconds, that translates to 150 beats per minute.”


Target HR Zone 50-85%

Average Maximum Heart Rate, 100%

20 years

100-170 beats per minute

200 beats per minute

30 years

95-162 beats per minute

190 beats per minute

35 years

93-157 beats per minute

185 beats per minute

40 years

90-153 beats per minute

180 beats per minute

45 years

88-149 beats per minute

175 beats per minute

50 years

85-145 beats per minute

170 beats per minute

55 years

83-140 beats per minute

165 beats per minute

60 years

80-136 beats per minute

160 beats per minute

65 years

78-132 beats per minute

155 beats per minute

70 years

75-128 beats per minute

150 beats per minute

Source: American Heart Association

For more information about St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group, click here. For more information about Dr. Hernandez, click here.

Related reading:

Fitness Gadgets: Wearing Your Heart Rate on Your Sleeve


This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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